One day, I came across Keisuke Matsuno on Don Mount’s YouTube channel. Suddenly it was going, “Who is this guy? This is a kind of guitar I love: exactly the way he does what he does, in the context in which he does it.” Certainly, there are other guitar players playing modern guitar sounds within the context of already outside, noisy, or fully electronic music, like Matsuno’s work with Hans Tammen. Rarer is the ability to inject these elements into a largely consonant context, like Nels Cline with Wilco, Ethan Ballinger’s work with country star Lee Ann Womack, or the subversive playing Matsuno himself does in saxophonist Timo Vollbrecht’s Fly Magic ensemble.
Let’s start at the beginning. Were you born in Germany?
I was born in Berlin in ’85, so technically it was West Berlin. I lived with my parents for a moment on the East side, so I know both sides, before and after the wall. My dad was a translator, working for a Japanese company.
How did you get into guitar?
I wanted to play the guitar, but my mom wanted me to play violin. She said, “It looks like a guitar, but it’s smaller, and you have small fingers, so maybe you should start with that.” I played violin for seven years. She always listened to classical radio at home, so I was surrounded by it, but I listened to a lot of rock radio and never heard violin there.
I too started on violin. I found that helped when I switched to guitar. You have to be able to bend the first joints of your fingers in order to play violin, so by the time I started guitar, I could already do that. I tried teaching for a while, and found a lot of people starting on guitar, who never played violin, can’t do that. They end up hitting the other strings.
Yeah, that’s true. I already knew the physics and the logic of the instrument. The first song I was able to play on guitar was “Yellow Submarine.” I remember it was easy to play those chords.
When you finally got proficient on guitar, what was the first music you played?
It went from my obsession with The Beatles to the blues. It was pre-YouTube, so I went to the library and tried to find records. I found the Kings—Albert, BB, and Freddie. Eventually, I had my Hendrix obsession.
After Hendrix, when did you start playing in bands?
I was part of the middle school big band. My friend tricked me. She knew I was a huge Beatles fan, and was playing guitar already. She told me, “We have a big band, and we’re playing Beatles songs, so you should join us.” We never, ever played Beatles songs, but that’s when I got in touch with jazz. We played easy arrangements of Ellington’s music and stuff like that.
Did you start taking lessons?
I taught myself for a couple years, which for Beatles songs was fine. When I got into Hendrix, I wanted to know more about how it worked, and eventually wanted to take lessons. I also had all this big band material, so my teacher slowly but surely told me about jazz.
Did your teacher introduce you to the records, and the artists?
Exactly. I also had a couple of close friends in big band who had a rock band. They asked me to join. One of those friends played me Herbie Hancock’s “Chameleon.” Someone was soloing on it and I was like, “What is this? Is this written? Did he learn this all by heart? It’s so long.” And he’s like, “No, he’s improvising.” That was it for me. At the next guitar lesson, I went to my teacher and asked, “What is improvising?”
At one point you became really proficient at playing straight-ahead jazz. There’s a video of you doing a Scofield tune, where you nailed that style. When did you decide you were going to shift to more a more outside approach to the guitar?
It was never a conscious decision. I loved the weird sounds Hendrix was making and it went from there. I had a long, obsession with Rage Against the Machine, especially the moments where Tom Morello would do all of these crazy sounds. I found some Japanese noise rock bands and was really intrigued by that. Eventually, I discovered bands like Deerhoof. Jim Black’s band, AlasNoAxis, was also a huge influence.
Old records where they are making mistakes were always intriguing for me; I tried to imitate those mistakes too.
Like if you hear Grant Green miss a string or something. It would sound so cool. Notes and noise always had equal value to me.
In Fly Magic, the music is not noise music. It’s lyrical and melodic. Were you encouraged to play outside within that context?
Fly Magic is my buddy Timo’s band. I never talked to him specifically about that. But way before that, I used to have Trio Schmetterling—which translates as Trio Butterfly. We were playing songs but incorporating noise and other forms of improvisation, rather than just playing notes or having a soloist. We discussed and experimented with how we could create noise, etc. within a song structure,
Is there something about your relationship with Timo that allows you to inject those elements into otherwise more lyrical material?
Yeah, definitely. Timo lets me do pretty much whatever I want. He writes down whatever he has in mind, but he is open to what we do with that idea. Timo knows me very well at this point, and just lets me do it. It’s not about going in a specific direction, it’s more about how can we make this interesting? There are a lot of lyrical, and very beautiful, melodic moments in his compositions. It’s about how can we do this in a different way, so those elements shine, but still balance it with other components, so that it becomes music worth listening to.
I’ve always discussed that concept in terms of tension and release. I find your playing adds tension to the music that might not otherwise be there. The proportions work really well.
Glad to hear.
When did you move to New York and why?
I came in 2010. I was at NYU grad school for two years and then stayed.
Did playing in the New York scene also encourage you in the direction that you were going?
Oh yeah. It is encouraging, but also discouraging. It’s such a huge city with so many artists with so many different ideas. It’s great to be around these amazing musicians, not only quality-wise, but also the sheer quantity. On the other hand, I have moments where I am like, “Whatever I do, there’s always a musician who can do it better.” It’s a balance.
That’s the nature of New York. But, you’ve developed your own sound within this concept. Fly Magic’s embrace of consonance mixed with dissonance seems to be a European and a Scandinavian thing. You hear more of that over there, where they don’t make as many rules about what musical styles work together. Have you found Europe more encouraging for that kind of thing?
Yeah. I’ve been talking about this with American musicians who know Europe well. The whole concept of songs combined with noise was embodied in Jim Black’s band AlasNoAxis, which has two Icelandic musicians: Hilmar Jennson and Skuli Sverrisson. When I grew up in Europe, most of my peers were really into that band. I still connect through Jim Black’s music with people about my age who grew up in Europe.
I want to get into some of the sounds. Are you using a pitch shifter or a ring modulator for pitch shifting?
I have both. I have the first DigiTech Whammy, the Moogerfooger ring mod pedal, and the Red Panda Particle, which also has some pitch shifting components abilities.
Are you using an expression pedal to shift the pitch of either the Red Panda or the ring modulator?
There was a time when I did. Eventually the expression pedal just got to be too much gear. I still carry way too much gear around, so I try to reduce it—that’s the ultimate goal.
Welcome to the world of a New York musician. If you can’t carry it on the subway, it’s got to go.
What distortion are you using now?
Currently, this overdrive pedal called the Greedtone. I have the Z.Vex Fuzz Factory. On my current board, I also have the Ibanez Tube Screamer.
What are you using for delay?
I really love the Chase Bliss delay. I don’t know the model name. It has an analog circuitry. Depending on how you set it, it distorts by itself.
You used to play an Epiphone Riviera with Mini-Humbuckers, and then you switched to a Tele. Why the switch?
Good question. I used to also work with a lot of singer-songwriters, and there were many moments where I wished I had a solid body guitar. I was trying to fake a solid body sound, which was always tricky. Another thing was that I like having a solid guitar in the literal sense of having a “solid” guitar. You can do whatever you want with it and it seems indestructible. I feel like a semi-hollow guitar has a delicate element. I automatically tend to be to a little more careful with it.
That’s true, you can throw a Tele down a flight of stairs, and you can’t do that with the Epiphone Riviera. It’s interesting to hear you speak of it in terms of a musical sense of solidity and inspiration.
Obviously, I also wanted to have that Tele sound. There are practical reasons, as well. I’ve been on tour for years, and it got harder to take my Epiphone, with me. They would ask me to check it sometimes and I would be sitting in the plane, completely scared. If I have my Tele with me, I have less of that.
Is it a Fender?
No. I told a drummer friend of mine, Cody Brown that I’d love to have a Tele. Eventually he said, “You should hit up my dad, he is a luthier.” His name is Eric Brown. I got in touch with Eric and he said, “I can build you a guitar. Let me know what you like.” I had no idea, but he gave me a bunch of amazing advice. Influenced by him, I told him what I want, and he built me a guitar.
Do you ever miss being able to play behind the bridge?
Sometimes. Now I do it behind the nut. It’s definitely a different sound. I had more sonic variety with my Epiphone. I miss playing it. I take it out sometimes, but the Tele’s such a light instrument, and indestructible.
What amp do you usually use?
We’re in New York, so whatever’s there. I have a Vox AC30 in Berlin that is my main amp when I’m in Europe. I also have a Fender 30. I believe it’s a hand-wired amp from the ’80s. Since I’m here in New York, I’ve thought about what to do, and I don’t know. Currently I have two solid-state amps, an Orange and the ZT Lunchbox.
The Lunchbox has become the New York, avant-garde, guitar player’s amp.
It’s just the easiest amp to carry around, so yeah.
How is the back-line scene when you have to use the club amps?
[Laughs] It really depends on the venue.
What is the Welf Door Unit?
KM: I’ve only recently joined Welf’s band. They’ve been playing for a long time, but the guitarist left and he asked me to join. There are three Germans in the band.
Are they in New York or Germany?
They all live in New York. Welf and Joe have been in New York since the ’90s. They’ve been part of the NuBlu scene. That’s a fun band. I’ve played three or four gigs with them.
In an interview you spoke about how you studied Japanese music for your dissertation, and how that related to the way you make music. I wonder if you could talk a bit about that.
I would love to. Initially, I wanted to write something for my master’s in Lucerne Switzerland about how the Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu was somehow related to modern improvisation. I quickly realized that, to understand Takemitsu, I’d have to dig way deeper and try to understand what traditional Japanese music is. I got more into that, and of course it doesn’t stop there. That music comes from a Korean and Chinese background. And, when you talk about traditional Japanese music, you have to deal with the culture back then, including religion, because a lot of music was sacred music. I had to dig into Buddhism and Shintoism. It was a never-ending story, so at some point I cut it off. Long story short, the piece of Takemitsu’s I looked at was a flute composition.
No, it was European flute. But in my dissertation, I talked about Shakuhachi as well. When it comes to the traditional Shakuhachi, they talk a lot about the balance between the tone you create, and the noise you create at the same time.
Are they talking about the breath noise?
Exactly. My ex-girlfriend was a flute player. She was always focused on creating pure tone, without any noise. I found it very interesting that in Japanese understanding noise was an equally important part of the instrument. It is about how to create that specific sonic quality of noise. That has stuck with me since I wrote the dissertation. The balance between tone in the European classical sense, and noise in Asian traditional sense.
It’s interesting that, while I love Shakuhachi flute, the only Western flute I have ever liked was Rahsaan Roland Kirk and Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson, both of whom added the breath to the sound of the playing.
Shakuhachi is also interesting because of the way the pitch falls off on a lot of the notes. That’s something that you can do with a whammy bar on guitar. My favorite John McLaughlin guitar tone was when he played in San Francisco, touring the After The Rain record. He was using a hollow body guitar with a Bigsby, and he pushed the Bigsby arm down to make the end of the notes fall off like a Shakuhachi. There was something very emotive and expressive about it. Do you relate that importance of noise, and the balance of noise to tone, to your injection of noise into your own music?
I don’t do it consciously but it’s back in my mind, and when I read these things a lot of it made sense to me. That’s part of why I like music that has noise elements in it: people like John Cage, talked a lot about this. And that was intriguing. Whenever I hear Nels Cline or Frisell and it’s not just purely tone based, but also noise based, I’m like, “This sounds great.”
It’s interesting how in English and German you can divide the words for noise, tone, and pitch, whereas in Japanese you could just use one word for all of these things: oto. Oto means everything from noise that doesn’t have any musical quality, like you dropped something and it made a noise, to the tone of the Berlin Philharmonic.
Perhaps that is why they have an avant-garde music venue in London called Café Oto. Who else would you like to collaborate with?
Good question. I feel like I am currently working with musicians who are very diverse in terms of musical exploration. A couple months ago, I played my first solo show. It was very inspiring. I want to do that more, to center myself musically, or recalibrate, so I can have a free mind when I collaborate with others.
Are you going to record any solo work?
I don’t know. We’ll see.
Do you have any recordings under your own name at this point?
Trio Schmetterling was our baby back then. We have three records out. It’s hibernating at this point. I don’t know when or if it will wake up.
It’s also very different than what you do in a jazz and improv context.
That’s true. I have a lot of collaborations of equals. The group with Hans Tammen and Rolf Bertheussen is working on a record. They are currently waiting for me to send them my track order.
Lately, I realized I’ve always played with musicians older than me or the same age, but recently I’ve started to play with musicians younger than me, too. In terms of future collaborations, I hope that will continue more. Things are also getting more diverse, in terms of gender and race, bringing in unique perspectives about life, which is then channeled through the music. I find it all extremely inspiring. Hopefully, I can just continue working with all kinds of people.